Call for Help

Outsourced counseling designed as an employee benefit helps low-income students succeed in college, the Dell Scholars Program finds, and colleges may be following suit.

September 4, 2015

Jennifer Reyes had reached the breaking point. Earlier in her time at the University of California at Davis, Reyes, now a senior, felt she could no longer cope with the demands of university life.

It wasn’t so much the academics, although Reyes said she had begun to struggle in her courses. Like many first-generation students from low-income backgrounds, Reyes lacked support from people who knew how to navigate college. And she had commitments her wealthier peers lacked.

“I had to send money home,” said Reyes. “I had to work.”

Salvation came from an unlikely source. Reyes is a recipient of a Dell Scholars Program scholarship. That program, funded by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, had begun working with ComPsych, the world’s largest employer-assistance program.

ComPsych offers a form of outsourced, short-term counseling. Many companies use it or other, similar firms so their workers can get help with life challenges, ranging from how to find day care or dealing with parking tickets to crises like substance abuse or coping with grief.

Typically employees can call a counselor any time of day or reach them via online chats. ComPsych also can refer people to one of its 40,000 affiliated counselors around the country for face-to-face help. The range of services includes dealing with severe crises, such as suicide prevention.

Colleges are among the company’s customers. A spokeswoman said ComPsych works with more than 1,000 organizations in higher education. The counseling option is typically aimed at faculty and staff members. But demand for student-facing counseling of the employee-assistance variety is growing, the company said, particularly in recent years. The drivers are increasing student stress, often over money. For example, ComPsych helps steer students away from credit card deals.

The Dell Scholars Program sought out ComPsych because an employee-assistance program seemed like a good fit for its recipients.

The scholarship, first offered in 2004, is aimed exclusively at students who have overcome substantial obstacles to pursue a bachelor’s degree. The 300 students who receive a Dell Scholars award each year are from low-income backgrounds -- typically first-generation college students.

“We’re really targeting the highest-risk students coming out of high school,” said Oscar Sweeten-Lopez, who leads the program. “Many are contributing financially to their family.”

In addition to providing $20,000 in financial support over six years, the scholarship program helps students throughout their time in college. Recipients get a laptop, textbook credits, access to a private networking group and mentoring. They also can get confidential counseling services to deal with personal problems.

Research has shown that even mundane-sounding challenges -- such as a late fee on a credit card -- can derail low-income students. And a recent study from the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education and from the University of Pennsylvania Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy found that 47 percent of students in the bottom family-income quartile had earned a bachelor’s degree six years after enrolling in a four-year institution, compared to 76 percent in the top quartile.

Sweeten-Lopez said the scholarship program found ComPsych on its own. They needed a quality counseling option for students and didn’t think it made sense to hire or train staff members to do the work.

“It’s a pretty big lift,” he said.

The company also was affordable -- about $11 per student, per year, he said.

Reaching out for help wasn’t easy for Reyes. But she made the leap and decided to call the Dell Scholars Program’s counseling option, in part because of how much she trusted the scholarship’s organizers.

“All they ever do is help us,” she said.

Making the call was a good move. Reyes said ComPsych’s counselors helped her step back and see the big picture. She said she liked the people she spoke with and got plenty of practical advice. Reyes made it past her rough patch and now is getting close to the finishing line at UC Davis. She said that would not have happened without the Dell-sponsored counseling.

“I wouldn’t still be here,” said Reyes. “I would have probably dropped out.”

Getting Creative

A few colleges have used ComPsych for similar reasons. Most, it appears, went with the outsourced counseling option for online or nontraditional, adult student populations.

The University of Wisconsin Colleges, for example, offers it to students who attend online programs. An obvious draw for the service is that online students aren’t necessarily near campus and often can’t swing by the office that houses counseling services.

Cathy Sandeen, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Colleges and the University of Wisconsin-Extension, said her institution began offering ComPsych counseling to online students in 2010.

“It provides 24-7 access, which is really important for online students,” she said, adding that the service costs roughly 25 percent of what it would for the institution to hire full-time staff counselors to cover student demand.

The use of outsourced, around-the-clock counseling is spreading, said Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

One reason, he said, is that campus-based counseling and mental-health support is “way overstretched,” meaning there’s plenty of need for high-quality, lower-cost alternatives.

“We need to provide a wider variety of options to students,” said Kruger, adding that colleges “are having a hard time of keeping up with the demand.”

One possibility, he said, is TAO Connect, an online service that was developed at the University of Florida. It’s designed for students with anxiety, with flexibility built in to cater to students’ schedules. For example, students meet with counselors online for 10 to 15 minutes each week and can access online tools whenever they want.

Harrison College, a for-profit business college based in Indiana, offers online counseling to students through E4 Health. And Kendall College, a for-profit located in Chicago, uses ComPsych.

While employee-assistance programs -- dubbed EAPs -- are rarely aimed at students, Kruger said that could change. One reason is many colleges already work with companies like ComPsych as counseling options for faculty and staff members. So it’s not a big leap to add students, he said, in part because of that existing relationship.

For example, EAPs typically have protocols in place for notifying campuses about serious cases, like suicide prevention or for victims of sexual assault. In those situations, staff counselors likely would take over after the outsourced service handled the initial call.

Another reason some colleges might follow the Dell program’s lead is increasing attention to low graduation and retention rates -- including from policy makers. The number of incoming college students nationwide who are low income and first generation is increasing. And colleges will need to get creative to help more of these students get to graduation.

The University of Wisconsin Colleges has synched its ComPsych option with an early-warning system that seeks to identify students who are in danger of dropping out. For example, if a student misses a few classes, Sandeen said, academic advisers have been trained to offer the option of calling a counselor.

An employee-assistance program could be a good option for the expanding pool of adult, nontraditional college students, said Kruger, who aren’t always a good fit for the traditional campus counseling model.

“That one contact could help,” he said.


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